Jerry York, Once Key Figure at General Motors, Ford and Chrysler, Dead at 71

Helped stage failed bids to control Chrysler, GM.

by on Mar.18, 2010

In his long career, Jerry York worked for all three Detroit makers and eventually challenged management at each of them.

Ask those who know Jerry York what they thought of him and you’d heard a mix of descriptions: brilliant strategist, gadfly, great ally, dangerous enemy, and a voice for change in a long-stagnant auto industry.

The truth about Jerome B. York, who died Thursday at 71, is likely a bit of all the above.

At the time of his death, from a brain aneurysm, York was serving as CEO of Harwinton Capital, an investment firm, and, since 1997, as a director for Apple Inc., the successful producer of iPods, iPhones and Mac computers.  But it was in the auto industry that York was best known, and where his legacy will likely be most debated.

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Born in Memphis, the bookish-looking York maintained a soft and subtle twang to his speech long after he moved to Michigan.  He was trained as an engineer, receiving degrees from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, MIT, and the University of Michigan.  But in an industry long divided between “car guys” and “bean counters,” it was on the finance side that he earned his notoriety.

York eventually would become Chief Financial Officer at Chrysler.  He was a key player in saving the company following a financial meltdown triggered by the second oil shock, in 1979, and subsequent slump of the U.S. auto industry.  Working with the legendary Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, as well as Steve Miller, another Chrysler executive later to become famous as “the Turnaround Kid,” they crafted a restructuring strategy that convinced a reluctant Congress to approve more than $2 billion in aid.

(Unlike the loan package provided the maker last year, Chrysler was able, in 1981, to avoid bankruptcy by using more limited loan guarantees, which Chrysler eventually repaid to the Treasury with interest.)

Along with Miller and Iacocca, York left Chrysler after it began its turnaround.  But a few years later, he teamed up with the reclusive Las Vegas billionaire, Kirk Kerkorian  — and, briefly, Iacocca – to stage a hostile takeover bid for Chrysler.  The attempt, by Kerkorian’s Tracinda Corp., eventually was  beaten back by Iacocca’s hand-picked successor, Bob Eaton, but ultimately convinced the Detroit maker it needed to find a partner.  Chrysler teamed up with Germany’s Daimler, in 1998, a marriage that would fail after less than a decade, setting the stage for Chrysler’s bankruptcy, in 2009.

York’s personal efforts spread far beyond the auto industry.  He served, for a time, as CFO of IBM.  He became CEO of Harwinton.  He was active in the tech industry, serving with both the retailer, Micro Warehouse, and with Apple.

Yet, the auto industry was never far from his sights, York serving, among other things as a board member for the suppler, Dana.  But the West Point grad, with a military sense of discipline, was openly critical of the declining industry and the ways, he perceived, its leaders were running things into the ground.

Some, like former Chrysler CEO Bob Eaton, saw that criticism as self-serving, and there was little doubt that York, through his continuing association with the hard-driven but eccentric Kerkorian, stood to gain even greater riches from his demands for change.

York helped spearhead a short-lived investment in Ford Motor Co. which, at the time, was in a deep malaise.  But it was when Kerkorian shifted focus to GM that York again found himself in the headlines.  With a 9.9% stake in the failing automaker, Kerkorian was a force GM couldn’t ignore, and it eventually landed a board seat for York.  During that eight-month stint as a director, York missed few opportunities to criticize GM’s CEO Rick Wagoner – who was eventually fired by the White House just before the maker declared bankruptcy, last year.

But Wagoner prevailed in that battle, for the time being refusing to cut GM’s stable of brands (which it ultimately did in bankruptcy, trim executive salaries or halve the corporate dividend.  York and Kerkorian eventually abandoned their seemingly quixotic bid when the giant maker rebuffed a proposed to become the American partner in the Euro-Asian alliance of Nissan and Renault.

“To get to the crux of the matter, I have not found an environment in the boardroom that is very receptive to probing much beyond the materials provided by management,” said York in a blunt letter of resignation from the GM board.
Together, York and Kerkorian took one more run at Detroit, but again, they failed in a bid to buy Chrysler, which ultimately fell into the hands of Italy’s Fiat following its emergence from Chapter 11 protection.  Not one to put on the face of a gracious loser, York subsequently raised serious doubts about Fiat’s chances of saving the moribund U.S. maker.

In a press release, Apple CEO Steve Jobs described York as “a pillar of financial expertise and knowledge and insight.”

Ask those who know Jerry York what they thought of him and you’d heard a mix of descriptions: brilliant strategist, gadfly, great ally, dangerous enemy, and a voice for change in a long-stagnant auto industry.

The truth about York, who died Thursday at 71, is likely a bit of all the above.

At the time of his death, from a brain aneurysm, York was serving as CEO of Harwinton Capital, an investment firm, and, since 1997, as a director for Apple Inc., the successful producer of iPods, iPhones and Mac computers.  But it was in the auto industry that York was best known, and where his legacy will likely be most debated.

Born in Memphis, the bookish-looking York maintained a soft and subtle twang to his speech long after he moved to Michigan.  He was trained as an engineer, receiving degrees from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, MIT, and the University of Michigan.  But in an industry long divided between “car guys” and “bean counters,” it was on the finance side that he earned his notoriety.

York eventually would become Chief Financial Officer at Chrysler.  He was a key player in saving the company following a financial meltdown triggered by the second oil shock, in 1979, and subsequent slump of the U.S. auto industry.  Working with the legendary Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca, as well as Steve Miller, another Chrysler executive later to become famous as “the Turnaround Kid,” they crafted a restructuring strategy that convinced a reluctant Congress to approve more than $2 billion in aid.

(Unlike the loan package provided the maker last year, Chrysler was able, in 1981, to avoid bankruptcy by using more limited loan guarantees, which Chrysler eventually repaid to the Treasury with interest.)

Along with Miller and Iacocca, York left Chrysler after it began its turnaround.  But a few years later, he teamed up with the reclusive Las Vegas billionaire, Kirk Kerkorian  — and, briefly, Iacocca – to stage a hostile takeover bid for Chrysler.  The attempt, by Kerkorian’s Tracinda Corp., eventually was  beaten back by Iacocca’s hand-picked successor, Bob Eaton, but ultimately convinced the Detroit maker it needed to find a partner.  Chrysler teamed up with Germany’s Daimler, in 1998, a marriage that would fail after less than a decade, setting the stage for Chrysler’s bankruptcy, in 2009.

York’s personal efforts spread far beyond the auto industry.  He served, for a time, as CFO of IBM.  He became CEO of Harwinton.  He was active in the tech industry, serving with both the retailer, Micro Warehouse, and with Apple.

Yet, the auto industry was never far from his sights, York serving, among other things as a board member for the suppler, Dana.  But the West Point grad, with a military sense of discipline, was openly critical of the declining industry and the ways, he perceived, its leaders were running things into the ground.

Some, like former Chrysler CEO Bob Eaton, saw that criticism as self-serving, and there was little doubt that York, through his continuing association with the hard-driven but eccentric Kerkorian, stood to gain even greater riches from his demands for change.

York helped spearhead a short-lived investment in Ford Motor Co. which, at the time, was in a deep malaise.  But it was when Kerkorian shifted focus to GM that York again found himself in the headlines.  With a 9.9% stake in the failing automaker, Kerkorian was a force GM couldn’t ignore, and it eventually landed a board seat for York.  During that eight-month stint as a director, York missed few opportunities to criticize GM’s CEO Rick Wagoner – who was eventually fired by the White House just before the maker declared bankruptcy, last year.

But Wagoner prevailed in that battle, for the time being refusing to cut GM’s stable of brands (which it ultimately did in bankruptcy, trim executive salaries or halve the corporate dividend.  York and Kerkorian eventually abandoned their seemingly quixotic bid when the giant maker rebuffed a proposed to become the American partner in the Euro-Asian alliance of Nissan and Renault.

“To get to the crux of the matter, I have not found an environment in the boardroom that is very receptive to probing much beyond the materials provided by management,” said York in a blunt letter of resignation from the GM board.
Together, York and Kerkorian took one more run at Detroit, but again, they failed in a bid to buy Chrysler, which ultimately fell into the hands of Italy’s Fiat following its emergence from Chapter 11 protection.  Not one to put on the face of a gracious loser, York subsequently raised serious doubts about Fiat’s chances of saving the moribund U.S. maker.

In a press release, Apple CEO Steve Jobs described York as “a pillar of financial expertise and knowledge and insight.”

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